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Jurchen Warriors

The Jurchen were a sedentary, Tungus-speaking people living in Manchuria and southeastern Siberia. In the eleventh century there were two groups of Jurchen. One was a little-assimilated group of “raw” tribesmen living more or less the traditional life. The other was the “cooked” Jurchen, who had interacted closely with the Kitan, the dominant political group at that time in north China and rulers of the Liao dynasty (906–1125), and with the many Chinese ruled by the Kitan.

The founder of the Jurchen state, the chieftain Aguda (1068–1123) of the Wanyan clan, was primarily a ruler of the “raw” Jurchen, but he had learned how to use cavalry effectively in warfare from the Kitan. (Horsemanship and war on horseback were then not part of Jurchen native tradition but soon became an important part of Jurchen culture and the real basis of their military power.) Aguda had also learned how to form a state in the Central Asian manner, by grafting heterogeneous elements, including Kitan tribesmen dissatisfied with their own government, around a Jurchen core.

After a series of raids conducted all along Liao’s western frontiers, Aguda went over to a general attack and began taking the Liao subordinate capitals one by one, sometimes with the help of the native Chinese dynasty occupying the rest of China, the Northern Song (960–1126). Aguda died before completing his conquest of Liao, but his successor Wuqimai, or Taizong (1075–1135), not only completed his task, but even began a massive invasion of Song, his former ally. It had attempted to make gains in the north as Liao had collapsed at the expense of Jin.

The decades of war that followed nearly destroyed the Song, which had to be reorganized as a new dynasty, the Southern Song (1127–1279) under a collateral branch of the old imperial line, based in the city of Hangzhou in central China. Not just the old Liao domains, which had been confined to the northeast, but the entire north came under Jin control. China was divided between two equally powerful regimes, with a third regime, that of the Xi Xia state, occupying the northwest.

Even as the wars with Song continued, internecine struggle divided the Jin elite. In order to organize its new conquests, the Jin courts of Wuqimai and his successors had adopted Chinese forms of government. Many traditional elements of Jin society failed to understand why this was necessary; they felt that their vested interests were in danger and that they faced absorption by Chinese culture. This conflict was still unresolved at the time of the Mongol invasions, which was one of the reasons why the Mongols were able to conquer Jin with relative ease, in part with some of the very same tribal allies that the Jurchen had used in their own rise.

The Jurchen emperor at the time of the dynasty’s first Mongol crisis was Zhangzong (1168–1208), a Sinicizer. He had begun a new war with the Southern Song in 1207 in which Jurchen cavalry had proven far less effective than in the past, indicating a weakening of a native Jurchen tribal base that was having more and more difficulty maintaining its traditional life and the cavalry forces sanctioned by Aguda as part of this traditional life. The reign of Zhangzong also witnessed growing Jin problems with its other tribal groups, principally with the Kitan of the Sino-Mongolian frontier zone. In 1207, most of the peoples involved revolted, handing what is now Inner Mongolia over to the Mongols, who used it as a base for raiding and expansion.

The response of the Jin, who had once actively intervened in the steppe and had manipulated events there in its own interests, was to build fortifications. These proved no barrier whatever to the Mongols, who began a general assault on the Jin in 1211. During the next 23 years they conquered Jin territory piecemeal. They took the principal Jin capital of Zhongdu in 1215 and consolidated their rule in much of the north with a great deal of local help, including from Chinese warlords, the Kitan, and even Jurchen allies. The Jurchen court could only retreat to its domains along the Yellow (Huang) River, where it was able to hold out for another nineteen years thanks to Mongol preoccupation elsewhere, principally with a campaign in the west (1218–1223) and with the conquest of Xi Xia, and then an interregnum.

The end came when the Mongol khan Ogodei (1185–1241) gathered his resources and refocused Mongol attention on China. The Jin capital was then at Kaifeng. The Mongols assaulted it from several directions. The capital, swollen by refugees, was forced to extremities, and the Jin court fled south to Caizhou, where it attempted to organize further resistance. Kaifeng fell in 1233 and Caizhou in February 1234. The last Jin emperor killed himself.

Although their dynasty was at an end, the Jurchen, unlike the Tangus of Xi Xia, who were virtually exterminated resisting the Mongols, survived and prospered. The Jurchen had their own native scripts, based loosely on Chinese, and these survived into the sixteenth century. Later the same cultural groups that had given rise to the Jurchen produced the Manchu, who had their own “raw” and “cooked” components and who also tried to combine tribal vigor with a Chinese style of government. They had even less success than the Jurchen in maintaining their ethnic identity during their reign of China, and the once large Tungus population of Manchuria is all but extinct today.

Further Reading Buell, Paul D. (1979) “The Role of the Sino-Mongolian Frontier Zone in the Rise of Cinggis-qan.” In Studies on Mongolia, Proceedings of the First North American Conference on Mongolian Studies, edited by Henry G. Schwarz. Bellingham, WA: Center for East Asian Studies, 63–76. Franke, H. H. (1994) “The Chin Dynasty.” In Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368. Vol. 6 of The Cambridge History of China, edited by Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 215–320. Vorob’yev, M. V. (1975) Chzhurchzheni i gosudarstvo Tszin’ (X v.–1234g.): Istoricheskiy Ocherk. (The Jurchen and the State of Jin [10th Century to 1243], a Historical Overview) Moscow: Nauka. ———. (1983) Kultura Chzhurchenzhenei i gosudarstva Tszin (Xv–1234g). (Culture of the Jurchen and of the State of Jin [10th Century to 1234]) Moscow: Nauka.